Barcelona and Modernity: Gaudí to Dali at New York’s Metropolitan Museum is a revelation. Well-focused, often spectacular, always informative, this show of 300 exhibits covering the half-century from 1888 to 1939 starts with a bang – haunting Blue Period Picasso, gritty Modernista oils, elegant Symbolist sculpture – and closes with powerful studies for “Guernica” and a group of celebrated works by that great 20th-century trio: Miró, Dali and Picasso.

In between, a rich mix of pictures, decorative art, graphic design, jewellery, sculpture, ceramics, art nouveau furniture, unfamiliar Gaudí artifacts and period photos provide a broad window on the arts created during this period. It all came to a crunching halt in 1939 with the birth of Franco’s fascist regime, although as any visitor to Barcelona today will know, the city has since recovered its dynamism.

The exhibition is organised into nine thematic sections, beginning with the Catalan Renaissance and ending with the Spanish civil war. At the turn of the last century, creative Catalans set out consciously to make Barcelona, their capital, rival Paris, Rome and London. This was a turbulent period of great industrial development alongside poverty and unemployment. The concomitant civil unrest brought strikes, riots, assassinations and bombings. Despite this, Barcelona transformed itself into a world-class city. Its prosperity made possible the Eixample (Expansion), a singular piece of town planning and Europe’s first grid, with boulevards lined with uniquely flamboyant residencies designed by Gaudí and others.

Spain’s artists were not afraid to tackle the social malaise that accompanied this growth. Picasso’s melancholy, monochromatic blue paintings such as “The Blind Man’s Meal” or “Woman Ironing”, which date from his Barcelona stay in 1903-04, are based on themes of misery, impoverishment and isolation. Even his key work on the three ages of man, “La Vie”, has an introspective air. The Catalan painter Isidre Nonell, an artist greatly admired by Picasso, characteristically depicted outcasts and is represented here by “Blind Beggar” and “Poor Waiting for Soup” of 1899.

Barcelona’s hub of avant-garde creativity was Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), a tavern founded in 1897 by four prominent artists including Ramon Casas, whose incisive portrait drawings and sensitive oils are one of the delights of the Met’s show. In 1900 the press reviewed an exhibition at Els Quatre Gats by “a young man, practically a child” who adhered to “the most exaggerated Modernism”. At 18, Pablo Picasso was already attracting attention.

Casas’s gifts enabled him to turn from gracious elegant images of the new affluent middle class to “The Garroting”, a ferocious record of a public execution.

The Met’s central galleries explore the effects of this Modernista ethos on Barcelona’s interiors. The newly wealthy keenly embraced modernity, commissioning houses from Antoni Gaudí with ornamental facades and filled with lavishly decorated screens, sofas, chairs and tables whose asymmetry is extraordinary. One Gaudí dressing table mirror here is held up on the diagonal by biomorphic legs, while Joan Busquets’s furniture sports sinuous whiplash curls around sunflowers, lilies and snails carved and burned into the wood. Amazing organic forms inspired by nature warp and swell in sculptural profusion across stonework, ironwork, glass panels, chimneys, windows, broaches – and, of course, churches. Gaudí’s Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is perhaps Barcelona’s most iconic building, “seemingly made of melted candle wax and chicken guts”, as Robert Hughes puts it in the catalogue.

It is a shame, however, that Salvador Dali, the world’s most famous surrealist, gets – as he often does in museum shows – rather short shrift. Here a Dali masterwork, 1931’s “The Dream”, is compared with a ceramic pot by Lambert Escaler because of its flowing hair and green glaze – this is surely a tenuous link, bearing in mind the thousands of such art nouveau nymphs.

Joan Miró, however, is properly celebrated here. We are treated to his superb self-portrait of 1920, painted when he was 27. On loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris, it alone merits a visit. Miró, a lifelong friend of Picasso, divided his time between Paris, Barcelona and the family’s farm in Montroig near Tarragona, although he claimed that everything he did was conceived in Montroig. His schematised painting of this farm was immediately bought by an obscure writer barely able to afford it, Ernest Hemingway.

Two years later Miró had broken free of nature, landscape and reality. In “The Hunter” (1923-24), he uses ideographic signs, simplifying, flattening and reducing objects to their essential characteristics, with symbols such as a hunter’s hat and pipe, a rabbit’s ear or a Spanish flag. Other pictures, such as “Woman Strolling”, continue this cryptic language, while “Nocturne” or his 1938 “Red and Black” series – refer to the events leading up to civil war. 

Picasso too is well represented. His many artistic discoveries, including cubism, were made in his homeland, and his roots and love of country went deep. Perhaps his most famous work, “Guernica”, which commemorates the bombing of the Basque town on a busy market day in 1937, was produced for the Spanish pavilion at that year’s Paris International Exposition. A model of the pavilion by Sert and Lacasa, plus several raw studies for “Guernica”, (“Horse and Mother with Dead Child”, “Suppliant Woman” and “Weeping Woman”) are on show. Three days after Barcelona fell to Franco, Picasso painted the despairing “Bull Skull, Fruit, Pitcher” to symbolise the death of Spain. He was never to return.

The Met show also highlights the many little-known artists whose originality and dedication contributed to the fertile half-century preceding this catastrophe. While Gaudí and Picasso inevitably shine, no one dominates, and the installation allows one to discover artists such as Rusiñol, Homar, Masriera, Jujol, de Togores and Manolo, for oneself. Barcelona used to be called “la gran encisera” (“the great enchantress”). After seeing this show, one can understand why.

‘Barcelona and Modernity: Gaudí to Dali’ is at the Metropolitan Museum, New York until June 3. Tel +1 212 535 7710 

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